Life-Disposing Punishments in Meaningful Statistics

face of a prisoner

Punishment has taken many different forms historically. These include bodily mutilation, whipping, branding, loss of civic rights, monetary fines, symbolic deductions (censuring, shaming, and stigmatizing), imprisonment, banishment (transportation), and penal death (execution). Punishment through formal penal systems is now typically associated with imprisonment. Other forms of punishment have been much more important historically.

Imprisonment, banishment, and death have the common, distinctive characteristic of being life-disposing punishments. Imprisonment, banishment, and death remove persons for extended periods from what had been the ordinary circumstances of their lives. Persons in life-disposing punishment and their families and friends suffer from mutual absence. Absence in punishment — the number of persons missing from ordinary life due to state-directed punishment — highlights the relational suffering of punishment.

Absence in punishment can quantitatively encompass imprisonment, banishment, and death. For punishment by imprisonment, absence in punishment is simply the number of persons in prison. For banishment, it’s the number of persons absent under a sentence of banishment. Persons absent in banishment can be estimated by aggregating the number of persons banished (flow) with respect to the average formal length of banishment. Persons absent in penal death can similarly be estimated by aggregating the number of persons executed across the expected remaining lifespan of those persons. Absence in punishment provides a unified measure of punishment across major forms of severe punishment.

Absence in punishment can be deeply understood in common sense. Prison statistics and criminal-justice statistics can be complex and confusing. Absence of persons abstracts from differential incidence of punishment. It allows persons to understand punishment without pondering the details and distribution of punishment across imprisonment, banishment, and death. Many persons have little understanding of the experience of being imprisoned, banished, or executed. But suffering from absence of a person is commonly understood. Absence in punishment provides a meaningful, quantitative focus for comprehending punishment.

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